Sunday, December 25, 2011

Glow-in-the-Dark Occupy Wall Street Christmas

The folks down at Occupy Wall Street organized 24 hours of Christmas activities today, and they invited me to participate!  So I brought glow sticks, pingpong balls, and dog bowls (i.e. Christmas Plinko) to Zuccotti Park.

Christmas Plinko is much like the game Plinko on The Price is Right, in that players drop a ball down a "bean-machine" style pegboard, and depending on which slot the ball lands in at the bottom, the player gets a prize.  Aesthetically, Christmas Plinko has a few unique features:  first, its pegs are made out of glow sticks; second, players cover their balls in red, blue, or green glow paint so that the balls leave a color trail as they descend;

and third, all the slots at the bottom are dog bowls.

(the dog bowls did not normally have glow sticks in them; we took this picture when we were cleaning up)

The most unique feature of Christmas Plinko, though, is that instead of cash, the prizes are suggested random acts of kindness (and everyone gets a prize).  In its inaugural run, the Christmas Plinko prizes were "Compliment a Stranger," "Offer to Help a Stranger," "Ask a Stranger to Share a Joy and/or Sorrow," and "Point out Something Amazing to a Stranger."  

Theologically, the concept came from Jesus' birth in a manger (a feeding trough for animals).  Just as Christmas celebrates finding and sharing love and light in an animal's food dish, so too Christmas Plinko invites players to find and share the love and light that they find in an animal's food dish.  Plus, it turns a game about getting money into a game about sharing love, which seemed appropriate for both Occupy Wall Street and Christmas.
 People really seemed to enjoy playing, and it was fun to see the random acts of kindness carried out and the relationships which resulted.  My favorite was a woman who won "Offer to Help a Stranger" and ended up giving an extra pair of socks to a gentleman with cold feet.
The only let down?  It turns out Zuccotti Park is really well lit (you can see from the pictures that there are both Christmas lights on the trees and lights built into the brick ground). This is great for the protesters, but problematic for the glow paint.  The balls did not create a very impressive painting as they bounced down the board.  Still, people had fun playing the game and being nice to each other, and for me, that made a very merry Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christianity as a Game and My Ordination

What if we thought of Christianity as a game?  

There are households where young men compete with each other to clean the bathroom because of a role playing game called Chore Wars.  There are city centers where teams people commit random acts of kindness towards strangers with the focus, precision, and subtlety of an assassin because because of the game, Cruel 2 B Kind.  
In the book, "Reality Is Broken:  Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World," Jane McGonigal talks about Alternate Reality Games (ARGs).  McGonigal calls ARGs "antiescapist" games.  Like all games, ARGs have four basic elements,  1) clear goal, 2) feedback on your progress towards that goal, 3) unnecessary obstacles to reach that goal, and 4) the freedom to choose whether or not to play.   Unlike many other games, ARGs allow us to get more out of real life by making it easier to generate "more satisfying work, better hope of success, stronger social connection, and more meaning."  Chore Wars and Cruel 2 B Kind are just two examples of ARGs. By giving clear goals, discrete actions with weird obstacles to achieve those goals, feedback, and of course the option of not playing, these games create an alternate reality in which tasks that are normally overwhelming, uncomfortable, and/or tedious become incredibly joy-filled (check out the testimonials on Chore Wars).

Two weeks ago I entered into an alternate reality.  I was ordained as a Lutheran minister. 
 Though I don't believe there was any metaphysical change, there was a change in the rules by which I relate to society.  I vowed to proclaim God's love in the world through word and sacrament.  And in response, the people assembled around me vowed to receive and regard me as a messenger and servant of Christ.  Together we entered into an alternate reality, one in which I had a clear goal of communicating God's love to all people.
This is not a reality or a goal that is unique to me as a minister.   It is the reality and goal which every Christian is invited to share. It is a game which every Christian is invited to play.  Some might think that calling it a game trivializes it, but I disagree.  Calling it a game drives home the basic Lutheran belief that we are free to play it without jeopardizing our relationship to God who loves us whether we win (we won't), lose (we can't), or don't play.  And as any gamer who has gone ten straight hours without eating, drinking, or peeing can testify, games have incredible power to motivate and inspire. 

The problem is, Christianity is currently not a very good game.  It only has two of the four basic elements of a game.  It has 1) a goal (foster unconditional love amongst all the world) and 4) freedom in deciding to play, but it lacks 2) feedback on how we are doing towards fostering love and 3) those random unnecessary obstacles which make games fun.  I think part of the problem is that the main goal is too massive.  There is no way for an individual to get feedback on how their actions are influencing the level of love in the world, much less to have any hope of actually achieving world-wide love (Jesus' job).

I think Christianity needs to be broken down into mini-games with small discrete objects about creating the opportunity for loving relationships.  In this way we don't have to measure whether or not we have created love (which may not be possible), instead we can get feedback whether we have created connections in a positive way and affirmed others as having inherent worth.  In this framework it is also much easier to come up with silly obstacles that make us think in new and creative ways and give us excited puzzles to solve.

I want to turn Christianity into a game.  A game in which everyone wins and the prize is love. Want to help me?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Community Created Family

When I explain that I want to create a church where worship consists of interactive art and social participation games, people wonder what that might actually look like.  I think my wedding is a perfect illustration.  I got married in August.  Elana (the bride) and I wanted to create an event that embodied what this wedding meant to us: the support of our community in the continuing creation of our new family.

The whole thing took place in a park.  Elana and I each started off in tents, whose front flap had a basket attached to a string and pulley.

The ceremony started off with a Rube Goldberg machine that conveyed two kickballs representing Elana and me.
(machine post deployment)

But as compared to most Rube Goldberg machines, ours quickly became composed our friends, to represent the people who had carried us throughout our lives

The human machine culminated by dropping the kickballs in the baskets that opened the flaps to our tents.  Then Elana and I walked down through a labyrinth in which our friends and family made the walls.  The labyrinth was designed so that Elana and I entered the labyrinth at separate locations, met in the middle, and walked out as a couple.  The people were also organized in chronological order, so that our parents and family started at the beginning of the labyrinth, our college friends were in the middle, and our most recent friends were at the end.  The result was that we literally walked through the people who have made the path that led us to where we are today.

As we exited the labyrinth, we were guided by more of our friends to the pastor, who asked them and us why we had come.  The answer:  to create a new family, the McKelahan Family (formed by merging our last names of McKernan and Colahan).  The pastor asked who we call upon to help us with this task.

First we called upon our parents.  We had asked each parent to bring a piece of rope or cord that in someway symbolized their relationship to their child.  At this point in the ceremony, one by one, each parent presented their cord to their child, explained what it meant, and then tied it to the cord of another parent.  By the end, Elana and I were surrounded by a circle of bonds that our parents had tied together.  The parents laid this circle on the ground around us as the foundation of our new family.

Next we called upon the rest of our family, our friends, all of creation, and finally God, to support us, lay hands on us, and bless us in the creation of the family.

In the center of this circle of relationships, we exchanged vows, rings, and were declared a new family.

Then the party started.
In keeping with the theme of participatory creation, we had lots of interactive art.

A hula-hoop making station

A quilt making station where guests could cut interesting shapes and figures out of fabric to design a quilt that Elana's mother will sew together.

A typewriter so that people could write us poems, or other literary works of greatness:

Empty picture frames hanging from trees with costumes and polaroid cameras with film so that people could create a photo-booth.

Several audience participation plays written by guests

A bowling alley in which people could smash confetti-filled symbols of marriage over contact paper to create a beautiful (or at least colorful) collage even as our expectations get destroyed.

And of course, dancing.  We had contra dancing with a caller.  The benefit of this is that instructions are explained as we danced and it is more of a group than partner dance.  This way, no one would be left out for lack of knowledge of partner.

We even roped our guests into helping us clean up!

The event was truly an act of collaborative art, games, and community that celebrated the relationships that are the ground and source of our being.  In a word, it was worship.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Harvest Theatre

In the fall of 2010, I worked with Highly Impractical Theatre ( to win a grant to write and produce a play about my hometown of Milton-Freewater, Oregon.

In December of 2010 I went to Milton-Freewater for two weeks with Elana McKelahan, the artistic director of HIT (and my wife). Together we conducted dozens of interviews with locals and partnered with the Milton-Freewater Area Historical Society to learn about the town’s past. Then we spent a very hectic three months back in Berkeley trying to turn funny, tragic, and haunting stories about a small town into a play. In April, we returned to Milton-Freewater and presented a reading of the script to the community for feedback. The result is what we called a trilogy ‘inspired by the stories of Milton-Freewater.”
Known together as The Harvest Trilogy, three one-act plays traced out an arc of Milton-Freewater’s history by portraying stories from different points in the past of the two towns that form Milton- Freewater. "Fruits of Paradise" looks at the family feud between the Fraziers and Irelands during the founding of Milton and two women who try to keep the town from being torn apart. The division between Milton and Freewater becomes the backdrop for "In the Earth, " as the owner of the local shoe shop searches for the truth behind a young woman’s disappearance. Finally, "New Era/Nueva Era" follows a Latina high school student as she strives for college and love amid the valley’s agricultural changes in the new millennium.
The performances were a fusion of Milton-Freewater and San Francisco. Actual Milton-Freewater high school students played the roles of high school students, and two of their teachers directed "New Era/Nueva Era." "In the Earth" was directed by a local and starred members of the community. Highly Impractical Theatre brought up a troupe of actors from San Francisco to perform "The Fruits of Paradise."
All three plays were performed at the same time in various parts of the farmstead built by the town's founder in the 19th century. Audience members picked which play they wanted to see and then could return two more times to see the complete trilogy. Actors and audience moved through the historic cabin, farmhouse, and barn in a fully-immersive theatrical experience that will literally brought viewers into the world of Milton-Freewater’s past.
Between shows, apple cider and wine made from Milton-Freewater apples and grapes was sold and a local group performed balies folkloricos to celebrate the town's currently cultural fusion.
All in all people really seemed to enjoy seeing stories about their parents and grandparents, or learning bits and pieces about the past of their town. Nearly 400 people came to the weekend's performances and the local paper gave it "four thumbs up." But perhaps most importantly, a lot of people stood around between shows talking about the town's history and future.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Dynamic Space Design

It's been about a year since my last post, but that's not to say it's been an unproductive year. I've done a couple big projects that I want to share.

I was invited to work with Jamie Michaels, Paul Arensmeyer, and Staci Imes on doing the space design for the annual Earl Lectures at the Pacific School of Religion. This year's topic was, "Our Daily Bread: Faith, Work, and the Economy." The planners for the lecture series drew inspiration from the Quaker hymn, "Not One Sparrow is Forgotten."

The lectures last three days, and so the space design team came up with a concept that would change over the course of the three days.

We hung giant paper quadrilaterals of words connected to the problems of economic injustice throughout the sanctuary.
(That's a hose holding up the "trickle down" sign. Other signs not shown were hung with tire chains, trucking straps, fishing line, cords, and other implements of workers.)

Above the altar was a waterfall of fabric.

On the second day, the fabric above the altar started to spread out horizontally. Signs which the fabric touched began to fold. Signs which the fabric engulfed, folded into origami birds.

(A close up of one of the birds.)


The fabric above the altar spreads out almost entirely horizontally and flows out toward the doorways. Nearly all the words of economic injustice are transformed into birds which fill the sanctuary, and lead the way out of the room.

(not all the words have been completely transformed)
A thank you to Jamie Michaels, who took the photos and organized the design team.

I hope to have a post about the other big project next week!